Wiley Wonder, one of the MCs of 2 The People 4 The People, had something to show me before the start of our interview. It was an official document held in a clear folder and in good condition for being two years old. He obviously had been holding on to it as a memento. In neat typeface, the letter explained that the group would be in violation of an obscure and ambiguous noise ordinance for a show they had booked at a local music venue. It went on to say that all future performances by the group would require a noise permit. For Wonder and fellow group members Caz Chill, Riel, and Grayling Skyy, it was nothing new. Rather, the keepsake helped to document the group’s continuing struggle in establishing a dedicated hip-hop community in Harrisonburg.
“… positivity is the key, expanding people’s minds to think differently …”
“There really hasn’t been a place for people to step out. A lot of places don’t like working with hip-hop,” said Grayling Skyy. “I’ve run into problems trying to book shows all over Harrisonburg. When they figure out it’s hip-hop, they push it down. They say they don’t want that crowd. I did a show four years ago [where]the police said that not only would they not allow certain artists to perform because of gang affiliation, [but] they actually told us that if we wanted to have any hip-hop show in Harrisonburg, we had to go register it specifically with the police. That’s completely illegal. We have freedom of speech, we can go do these things.” Caz Chill boiled it down to one word: Harassment.
Throughout our talk, the most egregious examples of hip-hop’s violent notoriety came up: Bobby Shmurda, currently in jail on weapons charges, was mentioned frequently along with O.T. Genasis’s hit single, “I Love the Coco.” One has to look no further than Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” or Van Halen’s “Sugar Walls” to see the obvious double standard at work, something they have been fighting constantly since their formation in 2013. 2 The People 4 The People stands in stark contrast to the sensationalist stereotypes thrust upon them. Over the course of an hour, the group quoted Tolstoy, struck out at predatory capitalism, and parsed through the sometimes brutal logic of surviving in marginalized American communities. That double standard has always been bullshit, but for them, it’s a direct affront to how they view themselves not only as musicians, but humans attempting to affect the world around them.
“We’re saying what we want to say. We’re not saying some shit we haven’t lived or that isn’t honest to our lives,” said Riel. “We’re saying what we feel and that’s what people gravitate toward. Most people walk around each day not saying the things they want to say or having the impact they know they can.” Alacrity is central to the group’s philosophy, maintaining optimistic pragmatics in an industry they believe sacrifices quality for plastic materialism. “For the most part, positivity is the key,” said Caz Chill, “expanding people’s minds to think differently instead of just the next sneakers I’m going to buy or the next car I’m going to drive — dumb shit like that.”
2 The People 4 The People likens their sound to De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, paragons of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that pioneered a new hip-hop voice that brought radical politics into the conversation. After individually graduating from college house parties and cypher circles, they came together to perform shows in larger venues. “It just kind of happened,” said Wiley Wonder. “We didn’t label it at first, but then a friend of mine gave me the idea of ‘2 The People 4 The People.’ He thought it would go with my message and I felt it went with everyone in the group. I hate to use the term conscious rapper, but we like to talk about real issues, social issues for the most part.”
When The Golden Pony opened in April 2015, owner Paul Somers welcomed the group and hip-hop in general, fighting other stakeholders who were resistant to the genre playing a role in downtown culture. “I’ve been vocal with a lot of people that we’ve had zero issues,” said Somers. “We’ve never kicked anyone out of a 2 The People 4 The People show for being drunk, disorderly, violent, or sexually offensive. I can’t say the same for other shows of different genres we’ve had where all hell breaks loose.” The group credits The Golden Pony as their home base and a reason why other venues are starting to loosen their restrictions on hip-hop shows. In an encouraging development, Ruby’s basement lounge, below the well-established Clementine’s, will soon begin hosting open mic nights specifically for hip-hop artists.
Even with the winds shifting towards inclusivity, things are not always so simple. “They are opening up more, but there are pros and cons to it,” said Caz Chill. “The pros are that it allows more artists to express their opinions and ideas. But are they doing it because of the art and the sake of the people coming out for the art, or are they doing it for profit?” Simultaneously introspective and skeptical, 2 The People 4 The People’s strength lies in their ability to avoid taking anything at face value, in particular the motives of those who could be taking advantage of their music. For a group that has been burned numerous times by venues and the local machinations of small town politics, these traits have been learned the hard way. But as they look to the future towards expanding their performance range — “We have to get out of Harrisonburg, or we have to be the Dave Matthews of Harrisonburg,” said Wiley Wonder with a laugh — it’s a lesson that will serve them well.
Photography by Brandy Somers